Video arraignments helping to ease crowded jail conditions
Polk County Enterprise, April 2007
LIVINGSTON – Polk County officials demonstrated a new video conferencing system Thursday that will expedite pretrial court appearances for indigent offenders in Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity counties and lessens the demand on the law enforcement staff that transport inmates to the courthouse.
The video link can be used by local courts and attorneys to reduce delays in providing attorneys for indigent inmates in county jails, juvenile detention facilities and contract facilities holding county inmates, County Court at Law Judge Stephen Phillips said.
The video system is chiefly used by inmates who cannot make bail, Phillips said.
The system allows Phillips to expedite hearings that establish indigent status, appoint an attorney and allow inmates to enter a plea.
Capt. Brent Phillips (no relation to the county court at law judge) said the new system has virtually created an “instant court” that helps reduce the population at the county jail.
Capt. Phillips is administrator of the Polk County jail.
Over the weekend, local law enforcement officers can book in 10-20 people who have not been able to make arrangements for a bail bond by Monday morning.
Sheriff Kenneth Hammack has instructed jailers that the inmate to officer ratio must be no more than five to one when the department takes inmates to court appearances.
That ratio means five or six deputies may be needed for a typical docket call session lasting three hours or more, Capt. Phillips said.
The system improves security at the courthouse and the jail, since it reduces the opportunity for inmates to be passed a weapon or other contraband while at the courthouse.
“This will save the county a lot of money over the years,” Brent Phillips said. “If someone is booked into jail on a Thursday or Friday it may be the middle of the following week before they can be taken to the courthouse.”
Now, Judge Phillips can hold a teleconference session and give the defendant a chance to move ahead with pretrial matters.
As of Friday, 13 inmates were being held in contract jail space that costs the county $25 to $40 per inmate per day, Brent Phillips said.
“That’s not a bad number. We’ve had upwards of 40 to 50 housed outside the county at one time,” he said.
The teleconference equipment is in place in Coldspring and should become operational in Groveton soon, officials said. That will allow District Judges Elizabeth Coker and Robert Hill Trapp to also hold teleconference sessions at any of the three courthouses they preside in and expedite their dockets as well.
Livingston attorney Joseph Roth said his clients have been receptive to the new video system.
Over the two weeks the system has been operational, Roth said none of his clients have expressed concerns meeting with him via the video link.
The system makes it easier to meet with clients while they are in jail. Roth simply crossed the street from his office to the courthouse and a jailer brings his client from a cell to the conference room inside the jail.
During those attorney-client conferences Roth is alone in the second floor courtroom where the video equipment is installed and no audio or video recordings are made, he said.
At Thursday’s session three inmates were able to dispose of their misdemeanor cases.
The three inmates received sentences ranging from 15 to 30 days in Thursday’s session and probation was granted on one of the charges.
With his sentence probated, one of the men was scheduled for release from jail later Thursday.
Judge Phillips advised each of the men during Thursday’s hearing that they had the option of waiting for the next docket call to be brought to the courthouse and appear in person, but all three preferred to proceed via video.
Following Thursday’s hearing, probation department staff members held a teleconference with a fourth inmate to discuss the possibility of receiving a probated sentence.
Portable equipment has been set up in each of the three courthouses, the county annex at the old hospital building in Livingston and fixed units at the Montgomery County juvenile detention facility and the Polk and San Jacinto county jails, Phillips said.
Funds for equipment, computer lines and hook-ups came from a grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense.
The grant includes funds for maintaining the system, Phillips said.
Judge Phillips credits Jean LeBlanc, director of the Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity County Juvenile Program Department for overseeing the grant process.
LeBlanc and Judge Phillips visited other courtrooms in Harris and Montgomery counties where the video systems were already in use to develop plans for a system here.
Texas law requires that any juvenile who has been detained appear before a judge for a probable cause hearing within 48 hours and hold a detention hearing within one or two days and additional detention hearings every 15 working days.
Since all three counties house juveniles in Montgomery County those mandatory hearings require a juvenile officer to shuttle detained juveniles to and from the courthouse every few days.
The videoconferencing system allows probation officials, attorneys and the judge to hold hearings and confer with the juvenile without the costs and delays of driving to and from the detention center.
Video conferencing is routine in larger counties, but is less common in counties the size of Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity, Phillips said.
The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure has provisions for handling arraignments, pleas and hearings by video when offenders are in jail or detained, Phillips said.
“I believe that this is going to have a significant impact on our being able to promptly and efficiently provide attorney services that indigent defendants are entitled to under our Constitution,” Judge Phillips said.
“This system is going to allow permit us to move faster appointing attorneys and getting them in touch with their clients. By operating more efficiently we can provide the mandated services in a more cost-effective manner, Judge Phillips said.